The Approaching End of a Heartbreaking Era

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When the Education of All Handicapped Children’s Act (EAHCA) was enacted as PL94-142 in 1975, it was in the face of enormous opposition from school district administrators and their attorneys who were actively refusing to enroll children with disabilities in our nation’s public schools. Many have remained employed in public education, stewing in their own bile over their legal “loss” while begrudgingly enrolling students with special needs.

The EAHCA was reauthorized as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990, which has, itself, been reauthorized twice since then, the last reauthorization being in 2004. Clearly, Congress has no intention of returning to a time when discriminating against those with disabilities was perfectly acceptable.

I don’t know how many of you have experienced an employment situation in which people have been required to do something that they opposed, but it’s been my experience that some people in this position are more likely to sabotage any attempts to do things differently to “prove” it was a bad idea than to willingly go with the program. Some people are just sore losers.

In short, you’re not likely to get buy-in from people who had to be Court-ordered or required by regulation to do the ethical and responsible thing. It says something, anyway, about a person’s character when he/she forgoes ethical solutions for whatever reasons and, therefore, requires enforceable regulations that dictate what his/her behavior should be. Some peoples’ characters create a situation in which the behaviors normally associated with common sense and ethics become subject to regulation.

This is not specific to special education or the legal practices that surround it. This is human nature. Somewhere out there in the world is the person who justified warning labels on suppositories that advise they are not meant for oral consumption. Some people’s functional skills in various aspects of life, for whatever reasons, are seriously limited.

People tend not to make improvements when forced to, particularly when they perceive the improvements as a threat to their familiar, comfortable, self-serving routines. This, too, is human nature.

The problem in special education is that, following the passage of the EAHCA, too many people with chips on their shoulders were left over the decades in positions of authority in public education, passing their “insight” onto the people they were responsible for training and stacking the deck against the success of special education. In other words, ever since the passage of the EAHCA in 1975, there have been career public education administrators undermining the effectiveness of special education in order to win an argument rather than educate children, the latter of which being what we actually pay them six-figure salaries at public expense to do.

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A Discussion of Tustin

The documents discussed in this video are:

The websites of the professional organizations discussed in this video are:

Preventing SpEd Jargon from Impeding Agreements

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Source: Bob Cotter via Flickr

All too often in special education, those of us who have been working at it professionally for more than a few years have increased our vocabularies to include terms of art, acronyms, and legally significant phrases that mean a whole lot to us, but not a whole lot to professionals new to the field and parents. I find that a lot of my job as a lay advocate is translating SpEd-Speak into plain language.

It was actually during a case I’ve been working with a family that moved to the U.S. from Thailand that brought this point home for me. I found that by simplifying my language for the benefit of the translator, who knew nothing of special education, I made it lot easier for everyone else in the room to follow the logic of what I was saying. The meeting was also attended by the school district’s lawyer, who was actually pretty awesome once she realized what was going on. It was one of the most amicable and constructive IEP meetings in which I’ve participated in a while.

What I found worked best was to use simple language to communicate with most of the IEP team members, then sum up my point to counsel for the district in language she would appreciate in light of the regulations and the applicable science, if needed. In the end, what we figured out was that our 9th grade client qualified for special education as having autistic-like behaviors pursuant to 5 CCR Sec. 3030(g) and that his speech-language impairments for which he had originally been found eligible were features of his autistic-like tendencies as well as bilingualism coming from an Eastern tonal language to English.

I already knew from experience that throwing a bunch of jargon at people during a meeting where you’re trying to make things happen is not particularly constructive if any of them are unfamiliar with the lingo. Having non-English speaking clients only made the point more vivid. But, then I ran across an article in an old issue of Entrepreneur magazine that drove the point home even more, and, combined with my prior knowledge, inspired this blog post and corresponding podcast.

Click to Tweet: Throwing jargon around in IEP meetings is not constructive if the other people are unfamiliar with the lingo. #kps4parents

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Mental Health Services for ASDs

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Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud (Source: Flickr)

Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (“ASDs”), including Asperger’s Syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified (“PDD-NOS”), are often challenged by anxiety, which is an emotional health need. Many school districts contract with county mental health agencies or other providers for forms of individual psychotherapy services that may not be appropriate for some students with ASDs. Further, they may have no other service to offer to address ASD-related anxiety issues.

To add to the confusion, many county mental health agencies have recently re-identified themselves as county behavioral health agencies, yet they do not provide Applied Behavioral Analysis (“ABA”) or any other type of peer-reviewed behavioral intervention. ABA is supported by research to be effective in not only contending with undesired behaviors among persons with ASDs but also in providing explicit instruction to teach the skills these individuals lack.

Explicit instruction in social skills such as greetings, farewells, maintaining a topic of conversation chosen by another person, initiating conversations, and other aspects of human interaction have to taught to many children with ASDs as explicit, scripted procedures. Those procedures can then be generalized into real life by reinforcing them when they occur in natural settings and pointing out to the individual, in vivo, when he/she has engaged in the steps of the procedure so that he/she learns to recognize social contexts in which each script is to be applied.  Eventually, it becomes a learned, rehearsed strategy to deal with specific types of situations.

The degree to which persons with ASDs can master various scripted procedures, or even need this level of support, varies from individual to individual. The same for the degree to which someone with an ASD can generalize knowledge from one context to another, such as from the instructional setting to real life.  It’s called a spectrum disorder for a reason. The range of severity between mild and severe is quite broad and anyone can fall anywhere along it.

Traditional “talk therapy” that promotes developing one’s insight and insight into other people’s perspectives to sort out one’s issues is not necessarily appropriate for some individuals with ASDs. Because there are so many differences among people with ASDs, it’s not fair to say that no one with an ASD can benefit from traditional talk therapy. But, it is safe to say that there are a significant number of students with ASDs who truly cannot benefit from traditional talk therapy but still have emotional health needs that require mental health services as part of their special education programs.

The matter comes down to, “What form of mental health services are appropriate for students in special education who have ASDs and require mental health services in order to benefit from their IEPs?” Well, as with anything in special education, you can’t take a cookie-cutter approach and say one specific type of program will fix everything for everybody. For one thing, no such statement will ever be true; learners with disabilities, even within a population impacted by the same condition, are too diverse for one-size-fits-all programming. Federal law requires individualized programming for this very reason.

That said, there are certain approaches that are generally known to be more effective with students who have ASDs than others. These may work with many students with ASDs, but whether or not they will be effective with an individual student really depends on that student.  The following are possible methods by which effective mental health services can be delivered to some persons challenged by anxiety associated with ASDs.

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Reconciling the Tragedy of Newtown, CT

Connecticut School ShootingThis is one of the most difficult posts I’ve ever had to write, but the challenges it presents to me are nothing compared to what the families of Adam Lanza and his shooting victims continue to suffer, as well as their communities. Maybe I’m feeling a touch of survivor’s guilt. Unlike the dead, I still have the ability to soldier on.

When I initially heard the news, it was over brunch with a colleague and our mutual client. My colleague saw the news on his smart phone and let out an audible, emotional gasp. When he told us what had happened, I didn’t feel anything at all; it was just information and wasn’t real to me, yet.

I was still trying to assimilate everything that had happened in the IEP meeting we’d all been in earlier that morning on the tail of a grueling week that had left me already emotionally exhausted. A mass murder on top of that was evidently more than what my nervous system could handle at the time. Since then, however, I’ve been following the news and the weight of the situation has sunk in quite deeply, now. I can’t read about the victims without tearing up.

An event like this hits me from every side because I have devoted my career to protecting children’s educational and civil rights. Among those is certainly the right to attend a safe learning environment that fosters their development and growth.

On the other hand, the evidence that has been publicized thus far reveals that Adam Lanza was disabled, possibly with a personality disorder, possibly with an autism spectrum disorder. The latter sounds more likely based on the descriptions given of him, though unless someone who has actually diagnosed him is permitted to disclose his confidential patient information, we’ll never really know.

What the reports from those who encountered Adam confirm was that he was socially awkward and withdrawn and that he evidently didn’t process physical pain the ways other people do, which put him at risk of unwittingly hurting himself during high-risk activities, such as soldering electronics. That sounds a lot like a sensory integration problem to me, which is not uncommon among those challenged by autism, along with the social skills deficits he was also reported to suffer.

Regardless of his diagnoses, it was clear to the outside observers who encountered him that he was impaired. And, while none of the lay people interviewed by the media thus far can point to anything that would have tipped them off that this atrocity was going to happen, we are not privy to what any therapists or others who interacted with him on a professional level may have had reason to fear from him.

Even if no one saw this coming, the fact that Adam remained socially impaired into adulthood reflects a lack of adequate intervention when he was younger, particularly given the peer-reviewed research regarding what works with children challenged by autism. The reports from those who encountered him in high school describe a young man who couldn’t relate to other people, would engage in elopement, and experienced meltdowns at school that “required” his mother to come to school and help calm him back down. The Associated Press described these latter experiences as “… crises only a mother could solve …” which reflects an utter failure with respect to school-based behavioral interventions and a gross lack of understanding regarding parental ability versus the mandated duties of the public education system.

I’ve lost count of the number of students I’ve represented whose schools have chosen to call parents away from their jobs in the middle of the day – and parents who have lost their jobs as a result – because it was less costly to the local education agencies to call the parents to come intervene than to staff these students’ programs with expert personnel. Unless the parent has a BCBA, the parent is not the person to call when behavioral problems occur and it is unethical and unlawful for school districts to shift that burden onto parents.

The special education advocate in me finds this outrageous and inexcusable. Just because no one necessarily saw Adam’s potential for murder when he was a public education student with special needs is no excuse for having failed to serve him when the opportunity presented itself to do so. When given the opportunity to prevent this from happening, nothing appropriately effective was done. The burden was shifted to his mother, who ultimately became his first murder victim. Clearly, this was not a crisis that only a non-expert, gun-collecting mother could solve.

While I’ve yet to see evidence that Adam was on an IEP while in public school, based on the descriptions given of him in the media by those who knew him at the time, if he wasn’t on an IEP, it was the world’s biggest child find violation. I have to believe he was on an IEP when he was a public school student.

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Evaluating the Efficacy of the LRE

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I attended an IEP meeting recently that really brought home for me the complex nuances of determining what placement, or blend of placement options, represents the Least Restrictive Environment (“LRE”) for an individual student with an IEP. Not only are there the academic factors, there are the social/emotional factors of a particular configuration of services and placement to consider as well.

But, it goes beyond that. A truly honest evaluation of LRE also looks at the culture of the school, if not the entire school district, where the placement is to occur. What constitutes the LRE for a child according to best practices is not necessarily what’s realistically achievable in a school district that does not consistently apply best practices throughout its general education settings.

Many times, for example, a full inclusion program doesn’t fail because the child was unable to respond to appropriate pushed-in support in the general education setting. Full inclusion often fails because of weaknesses in how a school district has set up its general education programs in the first place, into which students with IEPs – who have all kinds of legal rights and protections that the general education students don’t have – then?try to integrate. The failure can be just as much because the general education setting is inappropriate for the general education students, much less a student with special needs.

Personally, I think every child should receive an individualized education. You shouldn’t have to have something “wrong” with you to be taught in a manner most consistent with how you are most likely to experience educational success.

However, our public education system was developed 100 years ago during the Industrial Revolution and emulates the assembly line. Trying to achieve individualization in a setting configured for mass production is an exercise in futility. Full inclusion, therefore, can fail because the effort to individualize for a fully included special education student in the general education setting runs counter to the mass production mentality of general ed.

So, what can happen is that parents will successfully advocate, they think, for full inclusion – or at least increased mainstreaming opportunities – only for the whole thing to go horribly awry once implemented. Afterwards, smug school district personnel will sit in IEP meetings throwing I-told-you-so’s into the parents’ faces, as though it was an outrageous mistake to push for full inclusion and?the parents should have known better.

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